Lamentations — Dirge over a Doomed City
The book of Lamentations was written as a funeral dirge over the city of Jerusalem, after it was captured and demolished by the Babylonian army in 586 B.C. (as described in 2 Kings 25, 2 Chronicles 36:11-21 and Jeremiah 39:1-9 & 52:1-27). Although its author is not named, Jewish tradition, the Septuagint and early church fathers attribute this book to the prophet Jeremiah [Nelson’s Complete Book of Maps & Charts, p. 220].
The construction of this poetic epitaph is brilliant. Each chapter in our contemporary Bibles is actually an acrostic poem, comprised of stanzas each starting with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. With the exception of chapter three, which is twice as long as the others, each chapter is 22 verses long—with one verse for each letter. Of all the English translations I could find on www.biblegateway.com, only the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), Jubilee Bible, and New English Translation (NET) include the letters of the Hebrew alphabet next to each verse in which it appears.
Each chapter/poem focuses on a different topic: 1) the destruction of Jerusalem, 2) YHWH’s anger, 3) a prayer for mercy, 4) the siege of Jerusalem and 5) a prayer for restoration. With heart-wrenching images and brutal honesty, Jeremiah expresses his overwhelming agony over the destruction of his beloved capital and the humiliation of his people. He personifies Jerusalem as a widow bereaved of her precious children, stripped of all dignity, and carried off into slavery. Through this classic imagery, the prophet evokes great pity for his people and calls on God and men to treat them with compassion.
Lamentations Chapter 1
The capital of Judah is depicted as a widow bereaved of her children, weeping alone with no one to comfort her (Lam. 1:1-2). Her former lovers have turned against her (v.2). She has gone into captivity and servitude among the nations, because of her sin (3 & 5).
The stain of Jerusalem’s sin has made her repulsive to her neighbors, and she is mocked by all the other nations (7-9). Her splendor, beauty and honor have been stripped from her; foreigners defiled her sanctuary and seized her treasures (6 & 10).
Zion’s sorrow is incomparable, because of the afflictions God has brought on Jerusalem (12). She complains, “From above He has sent fire into my bones… He has spread a net for my feet… He has made me desolate and faint all the day” (13). YHWH is the one who bound a yoke on her neck, made Jerusalem’s strength fail, and turned her over to those she could not withstand (14).
In Deuteronomy 28:45-48, the Lord said He would put His people under a “yoke of iron,” should they ever turn away from His commandments. Jeremiah later called this prophecy to mind, when he warned the royal court of Judah that to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, would bring them under just such a yoke (Jer. 27:6-13).
No doubt, Jeremiah expressed the sentiment of his people that it was God’s fault they were suffering—when, in fact, they were the ones who brought it upon themselves with their constant unfaithfulness to their heavenly Master. Lamentations 1:15 adds, “The Lord has trampled underfoot all my mighty men… He has called an assembly against me… The Lord trampled as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah.” That word, translated “virgin,” does not necessarily indicate someone who has never been with a man, but connotes a young, unmarried woman and is frequently used to refer to a city. This stanza makes a shocking point that God would treat the citizens of His holy city as something to be squashed and stomped on.
Jerusalem weeps for the loss of her children (v. 16), but then she acknowledges YHWH’s justification in bringing all this about: “The Lord is right in what he did, because I rebelled against his word,” says Lamentations 1:18 (GW). I’m not so sure the Jews had reached this conclusion, yet, but Jeremiah surely hoped that—through his song—they would.
Next, Jerusalem bemoans how she called for her lovers (her political allies), but they deceived her (19). Judah’s enemies were glad about her trouble (21). Therefore, the city of Zion urges God to take notice of their treachery, fulfill His word against these other nations, “And do to them as You have done to me,” (21-22).
The people of Jerusalem were as dejected as their city. They traded their valuables for a bit of bread to stay alive (11). The virgins and young men were taken captive (18). Some of the priests and elders died of starvation (19).
Lamentations Chapter 2
In this second poem, YHWH is depicted as a jealous husband, lashing out against His cheating wife. It tells how He threw her down, demolishing Jerusalem’s walls and burning her with the heat of His rage (Lam. 2:1-3).
The Lord destroyed His own temple and the palaces of the royal city (vv. 5-7). He let the royal family—at least, those that weren’t slaughtered before King Zephaniah’s eyes (2 Kings 25:5-11, 2 Chronicles 36:20, Jeremiah 39:6-9 & 52:10-15)—be deported, and the false prophets saw no more encouraging ‘visions’ (Lam. 2:9).
The city and its inhabitants were now properly regretful. Those that survived to see the overthrow of their nation sat in the dust, wearing sackcloth and throwing dirt on their heads (v. 10). Especially distressing was the suffering of little children too young to understand why there was no more food (11-12).
There was no consolation for Jerusalem (13). The false prophets deceived her with their delusions, so Judah did not repent (14). Therefore, her enemies rejoiced over her demise and gave themselves credit for her destruction (15-16). YHWH fulfilled the warnings He had given through His true prophets (17).
There was nothing for Zion to do but cry out to YHWH in grief and remorse, to appeal for mercy for her starving children (18-19). Verses 20-22 describe the horrors of the siege: cannibalism; the slaughter of priests in the temple; young and old, male and female slain in the streets; terrors all around because of those who surrounded the city at the Lord’s invitation!
Lamentations Chapter 3
In this, Jeremiah’s longest and most personal poem, the prophet expressed his own grief and suffering. God made him witness the horrors of Jerusalem’s destruction, and he suffered right along with his people (Lam. 3:1-3).
We see the effects of famine on Jeremiah: He had shriveled skin, brittle bones and rotting teeth (vv. 4 & 16). He described himself with one foot in the grave, “like the dead of long ago” (6).
Jeremiah was emotionally spent—identifying completely with the besieged city in her feelings of darkness, bitterness and woe (5). The prophet was literally in prison before the Babylonians released him (Jeremiah 39:11-14), but he also described a lonelier sort of confinement and heavy chains, with the feeling of being cut off even from the Lord (Lam. 2:7-9). He felt like he personally had been God’s target and had lost everything (vv. 10-13 & 17). He nearly lost hope, as well (18).
But in the remainder of the third chapter, Jeremiah’s focus shifted from his own troubles to God. He said, “It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail” (Lam. 3:22, WEB). As surely as the sun rises each morning, God’s mercies are renewed (v. 23). “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him” (25).
Jeremiah resolved to wait quietly for God and “bear the yoke” of suffering placed upon him, not resisting the Lord’s discipline (26-30). Eventually, hardship must end, since God is merciful and compassionate and does not willingly afflict humans (31-33). Nor does He approve violence or injustice (34-36).
Resisting God is futile (37). Job discovered He is Lord over both good circumstances and bad, as he pointed out when he asked his wife, “Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?” (Job 2:10, HCSB). Similarly, Jeremiah asked, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that disaster and good will come?” (Jer. 3:38, Lexham English Bible). Why should we complain when God punishes our sin, but lets us live to tell about it (v. 39)?
He urged his compatriots and other readers to “search out and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord” (40). Returning to the imagery of an unfaithful wife and her offended husband, Jeremiah said YHWH was justified in punishing their rebellion and regarding them without pity (42-43). He would not listen to the pleas of His unfaithful people and treated them like garbage, allowing their enemies to desolate and destroy them (44-47).
With poetic eloquence, Jeremiah described his pain: “My eyes overflow with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people” (48). He expressed no intention of staunching the flow of tears, “until Yahweh looks down and sees from heaven,” putting an end to the suffering of his soul and that of his people (49-51). No wonder we call him the “weeping prophet”!
Jeremiah recalled how Zedekiah and the other leaders threw him into the pit, nearly killing him (52-54). He cried out to God, and the Lord rescued him (55-58). The prophet knew YHWH was aware of “all their vengeance, all their schemes” against him, and urged God to repay and curse them for this unwarranted persecution (59-66).
Lamentations Chapter 4
In this chapter, Jeremiah returns the reader to the scene in Jerusalem: The stones of the temple were scattered in the streets (Lam. 4:1). “The precious sons of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold,” were regarded as common earthenware pots (Lam. 4:2, ESV). Women could not nurse their infants or feed their starving children (vv. 3-4). The wealthy were reduced to ashes (5).
Jeremiah felt like Sodom was better off than Israel. That infamous city was overthrown in an instant, but Jerusalem’s punishment was drawn out much longer (6).
He gave a graphic description of the physical effects of the famine: The skin of those once fair was blackened, dry and clinging to their bones—so much so that people were unrecognizable (7-8). He considered the fate of those slain by the sword to be more desirable than to die by inches from starvation (9).
Jeremiah poignantly described the cannibalism that took place during the siege (10). This was a consequence of disobedience prophesied by Moses (in Lev. 26:29 & Deut. 28:52-57), and then reiterated by Jeremiah before the invasion (Jer. 19:9). God carried out His word and brought the downfall of this city the nations considered impregnable (Lam. 4:11-12). The people suffered because of the bloodshed committed by both false prophets and priests (v. 13). This blood guilt made them unclean in their own eyes and repulsive to the basest Gentile nations (14-15). Neither God nor men respected the priests or elders anymore (16).
In vain, Jerusalem hoped the Egyptians would rescue her (17). The enemy confined them to their dying city and pursued them into the mountains and the wilderness beyond if they tried to leave (18-19). King Zedekiah, “the anointed of the LORD,” was captured when he attempted to escape (20). According to 2 Kings 25:4-8, Jeremiah 39:4-7 and 52:7-11, Zedekiah and company snuck out between the walls of the city, were captured on the plains of Jericho, and were carried to Nebuchadnezzar’s headquarters in Riblah. There, the Jewish King was forced to watch the slaughter of his heirs, before his eyes were destroyed, and he was carried off in chains to Babylon.
Jeremiah warned, that although the enemies of Jerusalem, including Edom and Uz, were glad to witness her demise, their day of judgment was coming, too. YHWH was planning something even worse to punish their sins (Lam. 4:21-22)!
Lamentations Chapter 5
The final poem in this collection is a prayer for God to see the suffering of the surviving Jews and relent. They had lost their homes and loved ones (Lam. 5:1-3). They paid exorbitant prices for basic necessities and served Egypt and Assyria as slaves—just so they could get enough food and water to survive (vv. 4-6). Because of the sins of their ancestors, they lived in fear (7-9). Their skin was “hot as an oven, because of the fever of famine” (10). Women were raped; men were hung (11-12). Young men and boys were consigned to the harshest kinds of forced labor (13). All reason for celebration had ceased, and hearts were failing from grief (14-18).
“You, Lord, are enthroned forever; Your throne endures from generation to generation,” Jeremiah declared (Lam. 5:19, HCSB). He wondered why the Eternal, All-powerful God would forget His people (v. 20). He concluded by urging YHWH to turn back to them and restore them, “Unless You have utterly rejected us, and are very angry with us!” (22).
These five powerful poems show us that, even in the midst of indescribable suffering, God is still in charge, still ministering to and sustaining His people. Whether we deserve our fate or not, His desire is that we look to Him. YHWH is not afraid of brutal honesty about our feelings of betrayal, isolation and hopelessness. Ultimately, He wants hurting people to acknowledge their pain and guilt and turn back to Him, so that He can heal and restore.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.